A bona-fide pop-culture juggernaut, High School Musical and its summer sequel practically own the television and music charts — and the hearts of tweens everywhere. So what?s the next arena for the Disney Channel franchise to conquer? Why, the ice-skating rink, of course. And so it is that HSM director/choreographer Kenny Ortega has donned his producing hat to bring us High School Musical: The Ice Tour (go to the High School Music site for dates and locations). It?s not like he?s a stranger to frozen water: He (along with Sarah Karahawa) directed and choreographed both the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics. The 57-year-old hoofer talks with EW.com about the difficulties of bringing the blockbuster musical to the ice, some valuable advice given to him by dance legend Gene Kelly, and the next installment of High School Musical.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Is the ice tour based on the original High School Musical, or does it incorporate parts of the sequel?
KENNY ORTEGA: Both, actually: They?re Act I and Act II. Obviously using pared-down scripts — a little more balletic in the storytelling and less requiring of all of the dialogue scenes.
Any basketball scenes?
Oh yeah, there are basketball and baseball scenes. We don?t literally play baseball. And we don?t full-on play basketball. But neither did we in the movie. We have ice-musical versions of the all the basketball from HSM1 and all the baseball from HSM2. It?s quite exciting to watch.
Do you think kids?ll expect to see Zac and Vanessa doing double axels?
I think they go with an expectation… The world [of HSM] has always been the greater attraction, and then the characters that live within it. In all of the fan mail that I?ve been receiving, you know, it?s Do you have Zac?s telephone number? How can I reach Ashley? But the question before that is always: Can I be in HSM3? It?s not only a wish fulfillment about high school, it?s also the wish fulfillment about singing and dancing, and living in a world where that is possible.
And that is there, full-on, in HSM the Ice Tour. Kids are having this interactive experience. Some of the characters are actually turning and looking up and talking to them, and singing to them — it?s a great thing to see. And it doesn?t matter that the youngest ones came expecting to see the cast from the movie on the ice, I?m telling you, they?re leaving having been fulfilled with the experience.
Do kids try to audition for you when they see you on the street?
I was on my vacation, in the swimming pool, and all of a sudden I turned around, and there were five little girls: ”Mr. Ortega, is there going to be a HSM3?” The kids want more. The next thing is, ”Can I be in it? Can I play Zac?s little brother. Or, can I play Ashley?s little sister?” When I was a kid, I was fascinated with the back of the television console in our living room, and I was always trying to figure out a way in. And I think there is that sort of desire to jump through the screen with HSM, just to be a part of that whole world.
So you can relate…
Yeah. I used to want to jump into Mickey [Rooney] and Judy Garland musicals. And I used to want to jump in and dance with Gene Kelly in Singing in the Rain — I wanted to be there with him.
NEXT PAGE: ”I always loved the moment where Jennifer Grey comes into the clubhouse for the very first time, and moves through this sea of bodies, and then ultimately ends up on the other side as Johnny Castle comes into the room…”
You worked with Gene Kelly on Xanadu and said he was a great mentor. What?s the most valuable advice he?s ever given you?
A quick story. We were working together on the movie, and he had invited me to his home, and we had a little dinner, just us two in his living room — I think we even watched football that night. And he started to talking to me, and he used the French phrase raison d?etre, the reason for being. And I?d never heard of the expression. And he was saying, ”What is the raison d?etre of your idea?” And I remember leaving, just feeling so dumb, like, ”What does he mean?” And I called my best friend Greg, who studied French, and he explained the phrase. What is the reason to do your piece in the first place? I would say that was one of the great things that Gene taught me. And also, the difference between designing choreography for the stage and designing choreography for the camera. Gene was instrumental in showing me the way and the difference, which has become enormously helpful in my life.
Do you have a favorite dance scene from your work in Dirty Dancing?
I always loved the moment where Jennifer Grey comes into the clubhouse for the very first time, and moves through this sea of bodies, and then ultimately ends up on the other side as Johnny Castle comes into the room and does this great dance with Cynthia Rhodes to the song ”Do You Love Me?” I always loved that sort of moment where we?re introducing dance from the other side of the world to the main character — and to have the dance almost touching her and coming alive all around her.
Who would you say has been your most improved star on the dance floor?
[Long pause] Improved? Gosh, back in the day, I remember working with Matthew Broderick, who came to me in a cold sweat and said, ”I?ve never danced in my life.” And he was somewhat panicked. And he ended up just loving it! He danced on the float in the parade scene in Ferris Beuller?s Day Off. That was a tremendous breakthrough for him.
More recently, it?s watching the way [HSM star] Zac [Efron] has grown. Zac isn?t formally trained. And yet he can get in the mirror with all these kids who come out of real formal training, and hang with them. You know, sheer will. During breaks he doesn?t leave the mirror — he?ll grab someone, and say, Review that with me. He puts the work into it. And the guy next to him, Corbin Bleu, has been studying with Debbie Allen his whole life — and this doesn?t intimidate Zac; it inspires him and excites him. I?m really impressed with Zac on so many levels. Remarkable kid.
What?s the latest regarding HSM3?
We?re in development right now — which would be for a feature. We?re hoping for sometime next year, if we stay on a soft schedule that?s been put to us. Peter Barsocchini, our writer, is right now, developing that story. I believe that Disney is in negotiations with all of our original cast, and I?m hoping that we?re all going to reunite to bring this to the big screen.
What else is next for you?
I?m working on a Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus and Jonas Brothers arena tour, which is going to start in late October. And I?m also in development for a live dance-driven production that doesn?t have a title yet. And I?m in development of some independent features for later down the line. Even working with Paramount in a development of a new Footloose — which is both on Zac?s and my list as a possible film for the future. It?s all really exciting.